“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
– Matthew 27:50-51
Sometimes the Bible records events that seem, in all honesty, to be strangely out of place. For instance, what is all this business about a curtain tearing immediately after Jesus dies on the cross? At first glance, this event seems like just a bit of random trivia thrown in to fill space—like a sports commentator discussing the color of the quarterback’s socks during a ninety yard touchdown run. But obviously this event—although not given a formal expository treatment in the book of Matthew (see Hebrews 9 for that)—is very spiritually important. From the perspective of the first century Christians who were likely familiar with Jewish laws and customs, the tearing of this curtain was seeped with meaning. For us, who have lost the cultural, religious, and historical context of this passage, some digging in the Bible is required.
The first question that begs to be answered is this: where this curtain was located. If this curtain was draped over a window at the local chariot dealer, then there is likely no enduring spiritual significance to its tearing (except that it no longer functions to shade the chariot showroom). However, because this curtain was a prominent ceremonial fixture at the Jewish Temple which itself was the fulcrum of Old Testament worship, the destruction of this massive piece of fabric by God has a radical impact on our understanding of worship.
Now let’s address our second question: what is the function of this fabric? Or, what is the function of curtains in general? In my home, these large, overpriced sheets are used to block out light, to prevent easy passage, and for privacy. It’s safe to say that the main role of a curtain is to “block out” or “hide.” And that was the precise role of this curtain in the Jewish temple. This important structure was used between two rooms: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, which held the ark of the covenant (and which represented the actual embodiment of God’s presence). This veil’s practical and spiritual function was to “block out” man, who is corrupted by sin, from direct access to God. It was designed to “hide” God’s presence. Specifically, because of our sin, God established a spiritually impenetrable barrier that prevented direct access to Himself and the fires of His all-consuming holiness. The only person allowed in the Most Holy Place was the high priest, and he was only allowed to go once a year on the day of atonement after he had received a sacrificial cleansing. This must have been a terrifying job!
So now that we know a little about this curtain’s location and function, let’s examine this curtain’s construction. In Exodus 26:31-33, God gives some very detailed instructions regarding its assembly:
“Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman. Hang it with gold hooks on four posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold and standing on four silver bases. Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the Testimony behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place.
Sources outside the Bible record that this curtain was a massive structure possibly some sixty feet long, thirty feet high, and three inches thick. This curtain was ornately decorated, and must have struck an imposing and magnificent figure! This was no haphazardly placed item used to improve the temple decor. The intermingled and woven yarns of blue, purple, and scarlet may also have special meaning. Although this is only conjecture, these colors may allude to Christ’s heavenly origin, innate majesty and lordship, and sacrifice on the cross. The cherubim embroidered into the fabric likely represents the angel that blocked the way back to the Garden of Eden after the fall of man (Genesis 3:24). In summary, our very access into intimate relationship with God, paradise, and eternity was both physically and spiritually impeded by our sin.
When Jesus solved the problem of sin by his atoning death on the cross, the gulf between God and man was bridged, and “Jacob’s Ladder,” as envisioned in the Old Testament, was fulfilled. The destroyed veil was God’s emphatic proclamation that the penalty for our transgressions had been Paid In Full! No longer was an imperfect and elaborate system involving animal sacrifices and priests needed. Jesus, the ultimate sacrificial Lamb and the supreme High Priest, had now fulfilled all the requirements of The Law. More importantly, with this imposing blockade now in shreds, God has given us something that was totally unexpected—an invitation to intimacy.
Before he was crucified, Jesus said these prophetic words about his impending death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” With the destruction of the curtain (and, therefore, the essential function of the temple), God resurrected His dwelling place from a man-made structure into the human heart. The result is that we do not go to a place to worship—we take the worship with us to different places. God’s temple is no longer in a building—we have become the living temple of God. The veil hiding God’s face has been lifted. We are now drawn into that circle of intimacy, love, and community shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The prodigal son has returned to the family.